News / USA

Author Investigates Real-Life Inspiration for Fictional Charlie Chan

Popular character was based on Chinese-American cowboy turned detective

'Charlie Chan at the Circus' (1936), starring Warner Oland as Chan and Keye Luke as Number One Son.
'Charlie Chan at the Circus' (1936), starring Warner Oland as Chan and Keye Luke as Number One Son.

Multimedia

Audio

The fictional Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan was the subject of popular books and movies for many decades. In recent years, however, the character has been criticized as a stereotyped caricature of Asian-Americans.

Author Yunte Huang says that’s not the case. He has explored the character and real-life policeman who inspired him in the book "Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous With American History."

Charlie Chan has been a familiar character to readers and film-goers, beginning in the 1920s. The globe-trotting detective solved crimes in more than 40 films through the 1940s, and with the advent of television, found a new audience in the 1950s and 1960s.

Huang, an English professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was born in China and discovered Charlie Chan through books by American author Earl Derr Biggers, who created the character.

"One day, I was at an estate sale in Buffalo, New York, and I found these two Charlie Chan novels. At that point I thought I knew that he was a negative stereotype against Asians, but when I read the book," he says, "I was immediately hooked. And ever since then, I've been a fan of Charlie Chan."

Author Yunte Huang's 'Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous With American History,' explores the true-life inspiration for the fictional detective.
Author Yunte Huang's 'Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous With American History,' explores the true-life inspiration for the fictional detective.

Huang believes Chan’s broken English and unusual aphorisms - ostensibly ancient sayings - were part of his charm.

"Let me just quote a few if I may - 'Actions speak louder than French,' or 'Mind like parachute. Only function when open.' Charlie Chan always attributes these aphorisms to Confucius’ oriental wisdom, but as we know, most of these kind of fortune cookie sayings, including fortune cookies today, are made in America."

As a fan of the books and films, Huang was surprised to learn that Charlie Chan was based on a real detective named Chang Apana, who was born to Chinese parents in Hawaii around 1871. Apana worked as a cowboy herding cattle, and in 1898, when Hawaii was annexed by the United States, joined the Honolulu police force.

"And he almost immediately became a local legend because as a former cowboy," says Huang, "he would walk the most dangerous beats in Chinatown carrying a bullwhip. He never carried a gun. He didn't need that."

Author Yunte Huang
Author Yunte Huang

Biggers may have learned about Apana from Honolulu newspapers. His first Charlie Chan novel was published in 1925. The first film was released one year later. Apana died in 1933 as a local legend, his reputation enhanced by the exploits of his fictional counterpart.

But critics say the portrayal of Charlie Chan, with his broken English, is embarrassing for Asian-Americans. In early silent films, he was played by Asian actors, but later producers would cast Westerners in the part, first Warner Oland and later Sidney Toler. Chinese-American actors, including Keye Luke, who played Charlie’s "Number One Son," were relegated to supporting roles.

But Huang isn't bothered by the casting of Western actors in the leading role.

"Growing up, for instance, in Chinese operatic culture, watching Chinese operas, cross-dressing, men playing women, or someone playing others, is taken for granted. It's almost a must. It's no fun doing yourself. So, coming from that kind of culture, I was quite comfortable, really, watching a white man playing an Asian character."

Huang notes that there is a history of what he calls "racial ventriloquism" in the United States, dating from early minstrel shows with white performers wearing black-face makeup. The practice was the result of racial prejudice and restrictions on non-whites, but Huang tells Asian-Americans that Charlie Chan fought racial prejudice with quiet dignity, regardless of who played him. The character outwitted both criminals and those who looked down on him because of his race.

"And I'm trying to convince them, you cannot dismiss Charlie Chan," says Huang. "If you dismiss him, basically you are dismissing American culture and what is most interesting - troubling, sometimes - but fascinating."

For Huang, the fictional Charlie Chan is highly entertaining, while the real-life policeman, Chang Apana, is a Chinese-American success, whose story is worth telling.

You May Like

After Kenyatta Setback, ICC Struggles to Move Ahead

Collapse of the case against Kenya's president, other setbacks are fueling a debate about International Criminal Court's effectiveness and relevancy More

Video Conservationists Use Science to Preserve Rare Species of Rhino

With just five northern white rhinos left in the world, caretakers hope reproductive science may be able to preserve the gene pool More

Video Opening Trade With Cuba Bittersweet for Some

Long-time Cuban exiles in Miami say news is double-edged for those who had to leave everything behind More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Islamic State Emergence Transforms Syria and Iraq in 2014i
X
December 23, 2014 7:28 PM
The emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as a potent force in early 2014 changed the dynamics of the region. Their brutal methods - including executions and forced slavery - horrified the international community, drawing Western forces into the conflict. It also splintered the war in Syria, where more than 200,000 Syrians have died in the conflict. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell looks back at a deadly year in the region -- and what 2015 may hold.
Video

Video Islamic State Emergence Transforms Syria and Iraq in 2014

The emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as a potent force in early 2014 changed the dynamics of the region. Their brutal methods - including executions and forced slavery - horrified the international community, drawing Western forces into the conflict. It also splintered the war in Syria, where more than 200,000 Syrians have died in the conflict. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell looks back at a deadly year in the region -- and what 2015 may hold.
Video

Video Massive Study Provides Best Look at Greenland Ice Loss Yet

The Greenland ice sheet is melting faster than predicted, according to a new study released in the Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences that combines NASA satellite data and aerial missions. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the finding means coastal communities worldwide could be at greater risk, sooner, from the impact of rising seas.
Video

Video US Marines, Toys for Tots Bring Christmas Joy

Christmas is a time for giving in the United States, especially to young children who look forward to getting presents. But some families don't have money to buy gifts. For nearly 70 years, a U.S. Marines-sponsored program has donated toys and distributed them to underprivileged children during the holiday season. VOA's Deborah Block tells us about the annual Toys for Tots program.
Video

Video France Rocked by Attacks as Fear of ISIS-Inspired Terror Grows

Eleven people were injured, two seriously, when a man drove his car into crowds of pedestrians Sunday night in the French city of Dijon, shouting ‘God is Great’ in Arabic. It’s the latest in a series of apparent ‘lone-wolf’ terror attacks in the West. Henry Ridgwell looks at the growing threat of attacks, which security experts say are likely inspired by the so-called "Islamic State" terror group.
Video

Video Russian Moves Provide New Mission for NATO

Russia’s more aggressive military posture in Europe during the past year has pushed NATO to take new steps to strengthen its defenses, providing it, analysts say, with a much-needed new mission. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Jane Monheit Christmas Special

Chanteuse Jane Monheit sings the holiday classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and explains why it’s her favorite song of the season.
Video

Video Ugandan Doctors Aid Victims of Sudan's Civil War

In Sudan's state of South Kordofan, the number of amputees as result of civil war is in the thousands, but few have access to sufficient medical help. Adam Bailes recently visited the area and says a small team of Ugandan doctors has been providing remote help, producing new prosthetic limbs for those in need.
Video

Video US Business Groups Press for Greater Access to Cuba

President Barack Obama's decision to do all he can to ease restrictions on U.S. trade, travel and financial activities with Cuba has drawn criticism from some conservatives and Republicans. People who bring tourists to the island and farmers who want to sell more food to Cuba, however, think they can do a lot more business with Cuba. VOA's Jim Randle reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid